Six Sigma and more:
Who can motivate people in
Last summer, the students of my Advanced Management Communications Skills class asked me to teach them about positive motivation. As I prepared to respond to their request, I realized that I could find nothing specifically on that topic. I did, however, find a useful definition in Wikipedia. Motivation is the reason for doing something. Since my research yielded nothing of significance that called itself “positive motivation,” I decided to explore some personal thoughts about that topic. I first assume that doing something is an individual, conscious choice. We do some things, such as breathing, mostly unconsciously, but here I will consider only those actions taken as a result of an individual, relatively conscious decision. I further assume, therefore, that a manager can only establish an environment that promotes motivation. They cannot really motivate anyone except themselves. Although motivation is a very complex topic, I’ll share a few highlights of the personal journey that yielded my definition of “positive motivation.”
School, of course, grounded me in the basics of Maslow, Hertzberg, McGregor, and other theorists who influenced me more subtly. My work at Ford’s Corporate Quality Office in the late 70s deeply convinced me of the value of employee involvement and participative management. But the event that most stands out as an early, important influence on me was a meeting with Bill Conway in the early 80s. The meeting was at a time when we had just contracted with W. Edwards Deming and really did not yet understand what he was talking about. We visited Conway because he was shown on the NBC white paper, “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” as an early American adopter of Deming’s ideas.
Bill Conway was CEO of Nashua Corporation. Early in his journey toward the adoption of Deming’s philosophy, Conway observed that his job changed as a result of his exposure to Deming. His pre-Deming job was, as he described it, to use “carrots and sticks” to get his employees to perform. Once committed to following Deming, his job changed to “help the people.” Maybe helping the people is positive motivation.
There are a few other fundamental concepts that Deming taught us all that I didn’t hear Conway articulate. Dr. Deming helped us understand that every problem is really an opportunity. His Japanese students coined the phrase, “Every problem is a treasure.”
The second concept is to differentiate between common and special causes. He clearly identified the errors managers so frequently make by acting on common causes as if they are special causes and acting on special causes as if they are common causes. As I’ve said in other columns, these errors are, at least, irritating and, at most, disastrous. I think that these concepts are also part of positive motivation. The third concept is “over-justification,” the idea of overly rewarding people for things that they view as simply part of the job. According to Deming, over-justification can, in fact, result in negatively affecting those people’s motivation.
A few years later, a student of mine shared the three most important things for a manager to do to encourage a motivated workforce. I have, unfortunately, over the years, forgotten who suggested these to me. I think they work as a way to encourage positive motivation. They are:
- Make the goal important. Make it larger than the individual and make it as large as possible.
- Make the goal personal. Articulate it in a way that the employees can relate to personally.
- Provide information on progress and feedback immediately. People like to know how they are doing.
After reflecting on these thoughts and a few others, I think Positive Motivation involves doing three things:
- Participatively develop a mission, vision, and goals for your enterprise that are big enough to honor the people who work for you, the people you serve, and the universe within which we reside. This involves seriously listening to, at least, a significant cross section of all those folks. Make sure that the goals you co-develop with each of your employees contribute to those larger goals and are large enough and personal enough for each employee to earn their commitment.
- Recognize, reward, and learn from the employees who achieve exemplary performance. Remember that rewards and recognition are dangerous business. Be sure not to create a system which, by its very nature, creates losers. Be careful how you reward or recognize anyone who sincerely believes that they were doing nothing special. That can, in fact, influence them to be less motivated than they were originally. Finally, remember that exemplary performance is frequently the result of someone “beating the system.” Help others learn what that person did so everyone can “beat the system.”
- Help the people. Model the behavior you want your employees to exhibit. This may be the most powerful for them to learn. Provide training and education as needed. Make sure your employees all have the facilities, machines, tools, software, and information they need to do their job. Create and nurture a physical, intellectual, and spiritual environment that encourages ongoing positive motivation for each and every individual.
I thank my students for encouraging me to articulate my views on “positive motivation.” Since Six Sigma is about, among other things, “...doing something,” I hope you find this reflection a way to make your effort to encourage that a little more successful. I also hope, as always, that you will share with me your comments and questions. I’m at email@example.com.
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